Whittingdale Saga Proves Nothing About Press Self-regulation

 

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Have you ever seen such a tawdry display?  The outpouring of indignation, vilification, justification, obfuscation that the now open story of the personal life of  John Whittingdale (above)  life has generated.

Let’s look at the arguments.

“This shows self-regulation works” say sections of the newspaper industry.  “There was no story here so we didn’t print it.”

Really?  So how come it feels like we have no end of stories exposing things that are private (private mind, not secret) on what seem too many very flimsy pretexts.   You would expect this story to make it into print 99 times out of a hundred. There may be nothing more newsworthy about it than the fact that sex sells papers. So why no coverage?

“There was no possible justification for intrusion into his private life” said a former senior editor of the News of the World. And we can ask “Really?”  a second time.  Because even though Mr Whittingdale was not a cabinet minister at the time, he was still a mighty influential figure as the chair of the Parliamentary select committee on Culture Media and Sport. Could this relationship cause his judgement to be questioned?

Morality seems often close to the lips (or letters) of this government’s members (of which Mr Whittingdale is of course one), from tax havens to welfare reforms. So might this matter raise ethical issues that could be considered newsworthy?

Is not the most likely reality  of the situation  that  this story was spiked when usually  it  would have gone to  press because  John Whittingdale, in political and  philosophical terms,  was perceived as a kindred spirit of  some newspaper proprietors or editors?  Whether it was an act of solidarity or because they feared the prospect of losing him, this issue was cursed with silence.

But even if certain newspapers have done the possibly right thing for almost certainly wrong reasons, critics of self-regulation need to be wary.

In timing that could  not have been more perfect,  self-regulatory body IPSO  hosted a “Reality Regulation”  review of their progress over the last two years  the evening  before  the Whittingdale story finally broke cover.  Many of the things critics said would not be possible have come to pass.  IPSO boss Alan Moses has had a notable success in ensuring reliable funding for the next three years.  The Editors’ Code – supervised by the Code Committee (which is distinct form IPSO)   has toughened the rules which newspapers have to live by in some important respects – especially relating to the role of headlines.  IPSOs standards work is, in my view, under-developed, but newspapers are now building compliance into their structures and having to have that scrutinised. If you  measure the progress  against  Martin Moore’s checklist, drawn  up  two years ago,  you  can  see why  the title IPSO picked for their lecture  was apposite.

We are a long way from perfection, or even satisfaction on press standards and press regulation. What distinguishes the non-appearance of the Whittingdale story is that many feel it is the exception and not the rule. That is the challenge for IPSO and the industry. Whether the current Secretary of State will be around to pass judgement on them is another matter.

Full disclosure: I was a member of the  Press Complaints Commission, IPSO’s predecessor, from 2008-2014

This piece also appears in the Huffington Post (UK) at http://huff.to/1WtTQ9k

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